By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports
In case you were unaware, the qualification process for the 2018 World Cup in Russia is underway for the United States Men’s National team. The results have been well, lackluster thus far. A 6-1 win over the little known St. Vincent and the Grenadines (yes it’s actually a country I checked) and Tuesday night a 0-0 draw against Trinidad and Tobago.
Now, that’s not to disparage Trinidad and Tobago, they played well and had the home crowd behind them, but the US is expected to win that game. Especially if they’re expecting to be an eventual contender to win the World Cup. Currently, the US sits tied atop their group with Trinidad in the 4th round of CONCACAF qualifying. The top two teams will advance to the 5th and final round. The US still has four matches to go in this round. They are as follows:
March 25, 2016 away against Guatemala
March 29, 2016 home against Guatemala
September 2, 2016 away against St. Vincent and the Grenadines
September 6, 2016 home against Trinidad and Tobago
The poor stretch of play has been a microcosm of a larger problem year for the men’s soccer program as a whole. To get a sense of what the outlook is like for the Americans moving forward, we caught up with Noah Davis and Blake Thomsen, two writers for the website American Soccer Now, to get their thoughts on a couple of different topics.
2015 ended with a rough 4 months or so including tough losses to Jamaica, Mexico, and Costa Rica, what is the biggest change in the way they’ve played these past couple months in your mind?
Noah Davis: To me, the biggest issue is a lack of consistency. That starts at the top, where Jurgen Klinsmann essentially never starts the same 11 players two games in a row. One of the best traits about the U.S. team in the past was that it played as a unit, and it’s hard to do that when players are constantly shuttling in and out of the lineup. Klinsmann also has a tendency to put players in positions they aren’t playing with their club teams and it’s difficult to adjust quickly.
In the two World Cup qualifiers, however, he put Fabian Johnson at left midfield where he’s playing for Borussia Monchengladbach. Could that be a sign that he’s willing to bend a little bit and play players where they are lining up for their clubs? It could be. That would be a good step.
Blake Thomsen: For me, the team has lost its ability to attack in recent months. Opponents, even smaller teams like Jamaica, know they can generate scoring chances against the U.S. because they don’t have to fear a potent American attack. In my opinion, we started to see a lot of this at the 2014 World Cup, where the U.S. finished clinically but really didn’t create many scoring chances. 2015 has largely been a continuation of that pattern.
Some of this is down to personnel. Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey are getting older and losing effectiveness. Landon Donovan is gone. But much of it falls on Jurgen Klinsmann’s shoulders. As the national team coach, it is his job to bring new talent into the team as veterans start to decline. He hasn’t proven capable of doing so.
Questions are beginning to be asked about Klinsmann’s effectiveness, how do you look at the job he’s done?
ND: A little bit of good, a little bit of bad. He’s had success recruiting dual nationals and he’s found players like DeAndre Yedlin and Jordan Morris who have more or less succeeded when thrown into the fire. He has a big-picture vision for the program and the clout to get the USSF to spend more than it has in the past.
But, the results haven’t been great. The Gold Cup was more or less a disaster. Mexico clearly outclassed the U.S. in the CONCACAF Cup (despite what Klinsmann says). And they didn’t blow anyone away in the two qualifiers. I think there was a real chance that he would have been fired if they lost to Trinidad and Tobago. I don’t think he’s been as bad as some people say. I don’t think he’s been as good as he might think.
BT: The Klinsmann arc is a fascinating one. Aside from some rough matches in 2011 and a few shockers this year, the friendly results under Klinsmann have typically been excellent. But outside of a brief run in World Cup qualifying as well as the Gold Cup in the summer of 2013, Klinsmann has rarely looked capable of producing the same types of results and performances in the games that count.
Obviously it was impressive to get out of the group in Brazil. No one can take that away from Klinsmann. But the performances in Brazil were largely poor outside of the Portugal game, and they’ve continued to be poor in competitive matches since then. Worse still, the results haven’t been there either.
I think the time has come to let him go, but I can’t see U.S. federation president Sunil Gulati doing so anytime soon unless the U.S. suffers a particularly embarrassing result.
Looking ahead, where do you see this program/team as they open 2016 with more WC qualifying and the Copa America coming up?
ND: The optimist says they are trending positive. They perhaps should have won in Port of Spain against a good Trinidad and Tobago side. The Portland Timbers Darlington Nagbe looks ready to contribute in a serious way. So is Gyasi Zardes and a couple other younger guys.
After a summer of experimentation, the center back pairing of Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler — for my money, the best pairing the U.S. has — seems to be the option going forward. There’s talent on the squad, and it’s not hard to squint your eyes and see it coming together in 2016. But, given past results, it’s also not unlikely that it doesn’t.
BT: The program is in a pretty bad place; it would be naive to say otherwise. The U.S. team has offered increasingly minimal evidence that it can deliver good performances and earn good results in games that count. That trend looks set to continue heading into further WC qualifying as well as the Copa America.
The good news is that the U.S.’s semifinal group for WC qualifying is very forgiving, and no matter how many issues the team has, qualification should be straightforward. At this rate, however the Copa America may not be pretty.
Fans are anxious after these recent results, do they have cause to be or what would you say to try and calm them?
ND: They aren’t wrong to worry. 2015 was pretty much a disaster. Michael Bradley said as much after the tie in Trinidad and Tobago. But if you’re going to have a terrible year, the one immediately following a World Cup is the time to do it.
They are in fine position to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, which is the only thing that really matters. Does the Gold Cup loss hurt? Sure. But there’s another one just around the corner. Not qualifying for the Confederations Cup is a bummer, but the Confederations Cup is a ridiculous tournament that has no affect on how well a team does in the following World Cup.
Did the team look bad at points? Absolutely. Did Klinsmann make mistakes? Yes, of course. But he seems to maybe — big maybe there — have learned from them. There are questions: What to do as Jermaine Jones ages? What about Clint Dempsey? Who’s the number one goalkeeper? There are also reasons for optimism: Nagbe, Yedlin, Fabian Johnson, etc., etc. The glass is half full. How you view that is up to you.
BT: Anxiety is understandable. Despair is not. This is international soccer, where fortunes can change incredibly quickly — just ask Mexico, which could barely tie its shoes properly in 2013 and is now firmly back atop the CONCACAF throne. Bobby Wood has a chance to be a really good player for the national team for a long time. Darlington Nagbe could be a key addition, with his natural quality on the ball. Matt Miazga looks like a really promising center back.
With that said, I really think Klinsmann needs to go if we’re to see the sort of turnaround that is needed.
All told, 2015 was a bad year for the USMNT. How they look moving forward, depends your perspective. As with any growing program, they have some positives to build upon and questions that need to be answered. American soccer fans can only hope that the answers begin to take shape in 2016.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.